In my previous article, we took a look at some of the costs associated with track days. Thinking that sounds a bit too expensive for the average weekend outing? Rest easy, for there is a solution.
Autocross (by the American definition - with open asphalt and a skew of orange cones) can help to take the edge off of your petrol-powered addiction. It may not have the same proportions as getting on track, but the limit of grip can be reached - and exceeded - without the massive financial risks or requirements of track days. A little over two years ago, I took a dive into my first autocross experience in a '96 Mustang SVT Cobra convertible.
It was a cold and blistery October afternoon, and the autocross track laid before me in a mess of orange cones. I was in an unfamiliar car, which I wasn't too sure of, and the task at hand was somewhat intimidating. Would I make a complete ass of myself? Would I manage to find the one curb in the midst of the course and damage the car - which just so happened to belong to the founder and organizer of the event? Would I blow clean through the stop box and display to everyone I had played too many video games? I decided my instincts have gotten me through worse than some cones, and went out on my sighting lap.
Once I got moving I quickly discovered the maze of cones was far easier to follow than I had anticipated; while it appears messy and unorganized from the sideline or the starting position, it was quite easy to follow as a track. As I went through the turns I carefully studied the apexes and rough or slippery spots. The outer edges of the course were littered with fine gravel and dust. There was a dip halfway through which could unsettle the car or cause some scraping if it wasn't approached on the throttle. The hairpin turn required a very late apex, or would cause me to run wide for the next turn. It was a short course, with the sighting lap taking just 29 seconds from start to the stop box.
Okay, so now I know the track; time to learn the car. When the flag dropped for my second lap I took off a bit more aggressively... or at least I tried. The Cobra - being the rather simplistic muscle car that it is - had very little rear end grip, so rather than taking off quickly I did a nice little burnout. The slalom was up first, which I tried in first gear and found myself going a bit slow. Through the next right-hander I was hard on the throttle. I had a good line on the hairpin that follows, but found the exit to be a bit wide and slow. Once out of the exit it was full throttle through the left-hand dog leg; cut the chicane as close as possible and into the stop box. That lap resulted in a time of 27.6 seconds - around the same time as others in the same model Mustang SVT Cobra. I knew I could squeeze out more, so on my second lap I was focused on hitting the limit through the whole course.
My third lap began with a much improved start: lower rpm at launch to keep the rear tires from spinning and a short shift to second before the slalom. Through the slalom I used the throttle to keep the steering as sharp as possible, producing a slight oversteer on the exit. This time into the hairpin I took a slightly slower entry and used a shove of my right foot to bring the rear around for the exit and go full throttle into the dog leg. This time, a touch of brake was needed to navigate the chicane, then a quick blast of full throttle out before stopping hard into the stop box. This time, I had a time of 26.6 - the quickest for an SVT Cobra I had seen that day.
By the end of that third lap, I was beaming with pride. Don't get me wrong, I realize this is quite a small accomplishment. That didn't matter; everything I had spent so many years learning through racing simulators and driving on the roads came second nature when put to practice - that was what really got me excited. I knew where and how to improve my time even further, and doing so brought huge joy. On top of that was the surprise of the day: the Cobra.
I hadn't expected the Cobra to be a huge joy - after all it is just a Mustang, right? The Cobra was an outdated and, even in its time, a relatively basic car. Big American V8, no downforce, rudimentary suspension and all the floppiness you would expect from a Mustang convertible. To my surprise, it was these imperfections which made the car so great. It had a loose back end which wanted to step out at the slightest hint of throttle. It had masses of body roll which made every corner feel far more dramatic than it was. It was a car perfect for fun over lap times - and even more so on the short and technical autocross course.
After a ride in a few faster cars, such as the 2011 Shelby GT500 pictured above, I was even more convinced the Cobra was the right car for the day. Whereas the higher performing cars felt glued to the track on the relatively low-speed course, the Cobra was properly on the limit.
My autocross experience came with an entry fee of just $40 at the Fall Cruise For a Cause - a Mustang focused car show and cruise which raises proceeds for cancer research. You can get involved in autocross of all competitive levels for similar costs by seeking out local car clubs and events - many of which are open to the public.
So, what's the moral of the story? You don't need a modern track monster and a racetrack to have fun in sports cars. You simply need a fun car and place to put it on the edge... and maybe some cones.